In For My Mother: May I Inherit Half Her Strength, Goodison publicizes the private issue of her parents’ less-than-perfect marriage, and, in turn, unfolds a powerful dialectic on female self-sacrifice and subjectivity. She wonders at the prolonged strength of her mother- a woman who, regardless of being the victim of an unfaithful marriage, neither confronts nor flees her fate. And at the core of Goodison’s poem is her own conflicted decision, as the female product of this union, to define her mother’s attitude as unwavering strength, worthy of reverence, or as passivity, masked by nonchalance. The title of this work illustrates this ambiguity: does the clause “may I inherit half her strength”, translate into “may I be permitted - by the same mysterious influence that affected my mother - to remain strong just like her” or “may I never allow myself to be quite as tolerant as she was.”
In the first stanza, Goodison suggests that the “absolute,” “my mother loved my father,” had governed her perspective of her parents’ marriage for twenty-nine years. Its indisputability may have functioned as a motivation for her father’s on-going extra-marital affair(s). But even more explicitly, this absolute implied that despite the pain inflicted by her father, “whom all women loved”, Goodison’s mother’s love remained unshakably loyal, and that that was somehow all that really mattered. At least, up until Goodison wrote this poem. “In this my thirtieth year/ the year to discard absolutes” signals Goodison’s revolt against this belief that had relentlessly threatened to break her mother’s “straight-backed,” fronted dignity and that absolved the indifference of her father’s “always smile”.
The lack of control of Goodison’s writing in the first stanza points to something deeper about her relationship to this absolute. Since absolutes are characteristically irrefutable and deemed factual, I had expected that Goodison’s writing would have illustrated the finiteness of this absolute by sealing it with a full stop. However, here, in the most transparently opinionated stanza of her entire poem, there is no punctuation whatsoever; each distinct thought simply spills into the next, and even farther into the following stanza where her topic diverges. It is difficult to say whether or not Goodison’s omission was deliberate; nonetheless, this lack of punctuation highlights her irresoluteness with this absolute, and suggests that for the twenty-nine years prior to the creation of this poem she had wrestled with its authority.
Goodison seems to be recapitulating her mother’s romanticized version of her parents’ union, but not without conscientious forewarning of and giving voice to her mother’s alleged matrimonial discontent. As the poem charts the deterioration of her parent’s union, from a happy, naive courtship to a physical separation by death, it simultaneously traces the slow corrosion of her mother’s dreams –...